Francis’ Visit and the Witness of the U.S. Church

Rich WoodThe weeks leading up to Pope Francis’ visit to the United States in September 2015 offer an extraordinary opportunity to see the Catholic Church at all levels in some of its best work for the world. Francis will be in Washington, DC, New York, and Philadelphia, but he will address each person and the local church in the U.S.  and around the world.

In Washington, DC, Francis will address an extraordinary joint session of Congress. Massive media attention will surely focus on how he applies Catholic teaching on economic inequality, racial exclusion, and the dignity of all human persons to an American society for whom those issues have been the focus of intense partisan battles and social divisions.

In New York he will speak at the United Nations. He is likely to share the heart of his recent encyclical, Laudato Si’, with its clarion call for greater international cooperation to address both economic exclusion and climate change, especially their impact on the poor.

In Philadelphia, at the World Meeting of Families, Francis is expected to focus on themes related to the upcoming Synod on the Family in October. This will offer a forum to address a broad range of issues that affect contemporary families—including all of the above.

In all these settings, much media hyperbole will stress Francis’ dynamic personality and global star status. For Catholics, this will be gratifying and inspiring—but will also shroud the consistency of Catholic social teaching across all these terrains: For almost 125 years, the highest teaching authorities of the universal Church have emphasized important themes—such as an economy at the service of human beings, human solidarity as a key Christian and human virtue, and the dignity of all persons at all moments and in all settings.  Key documents include, among others: Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum; the Gaudium et spes document of Vatican II, called for by John XXXIII and issued by Paul VI; John Paul II’s Laborem exercens and Solicitudo rei socialis; Benedict XVI’s Caritas en veritate; and Francis’ own Evangelii gaudium. Francis’ star power may get these messages across to a new generation—and he may apply the teaching with new insight to address new realities—but at the heart of his message will be long abiding truths.

To see this, U.S. Catholics need only look at the decades-long commitment of our bishops nationally, most recently via the work of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). For decades, its Department of Justice, Peace, and Human Development (JPHD) has done practical work inspired by precisely these teachings. Catholic Relief Services sponsors refugee relief and international economic development in some of the poorest places and most desperate humanitarian crises of our time.  The USCCB Department of Migration and Refugee Services protects the life and dignity of the human person by serving and advocating for refugees, asylees, migrants, unaccompanied children, and victims of human trafficking. The USCCB’s Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD) supports community organizing and economic development initiatives whereby poor communities are empowered to speak for their own needs and dignity, and in favor of greater racial inclusion, economic opportunity, and immigrant rights in American life.

In hundreds of local communities and dioceses throughout the United States, CCHD’s investment has enabled people to speak for their communities and in keeping with Catholic teaching. One national network of such groups, the PICO National Network, will be present in Philadelphia to help call attention to the above themes during Francis’ visit, and has developed study materials to help local parishes and faith-sharing groups to prepare for and reflect on the papal visit.

Precisely what Pope Francis will say to America will be revealed only when he steps on our shores. But his visit seems likely to spotlight how the Catholic Church works on multiple levels like no other human agency in the world: with deep roots in local communities and people’s concrete lives; guided by a coherent set of teachings about human life and meaning; driven by transcendent values and Gospel teachings; and capable of worldwide coordination under Spirit-inspired leadership.

Richard L. Wood is Professor of Sociology at the University of New Mexico and co-author of A Shared Future: Faith-Based Organizing for Racial Equity and Ethical Democracy (University of Chicago Press, 2015). He serves as a consultant to the USCCB Subcommittee on the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. 

Campus Witness in the Community

Andrea Price

One highlight during my internship this year with the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities has been researching some inspiring examples of how colleges and universities are making a difference in their communities – specifically by partnering with community organizations that receive funding from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development.

One example of partnership is Xavier University (OH) faculty, students, and staff with Interfaith Business Builders (IBB), a CCHD-funded group in Cincinnati. IBB recently opened Community Blend, a cooperative coffee shop where employees own an equal share of the business and fully participate in the company’s decision-making processes. Xavier University students and faculty have helped with Community Blend’s business plan in the past, and this year they engaged with the cooperative by creating its communications platform.

In Wendy Maxian’s capstone class for seniors studying public relations, students conducted original research on Community Blend, and then created a strategic communications plan for the new business. Dr. Maxian, a professor of communication arts, said that her students appreciated the chance to create a real communications plan that a business will use, rather than an imaginary one as an assignment. Students enjoyed learning about the cooperative business model from Community Blend employee-owners, who also participated in the class. Dr. Maxian explains, “As a cooperative business, Community Blend’s values very much line up with Xavier’s Catholic and Jesuit values. I think it’s important for students to see those values in a context other than what they’d find on campus.”

Future projects between Xavier University and Community Blend will focus on sustainability initiatives. Kathleen Smythe, a professor of history, has been working with other Xavier faculty members, IBB representatives, and Community Blend employee-owners to create a capstone course for sustainability majors, which will focus on sustainability, democracy, economic and political opportunity, and participation. The class will include readings, discussions, and field trips, specifically working with Community Blend employee-owners to enrich students’ learning outside the classroom. Dr. Smythe noted the value of the real-world experience that the students will gain from the endeavor. “The university has a moral and educational obligation to students to teach them the skills that will enable them to go out into the world,” she explained.

Another example of partnership includes the student group Ambrosians for Peace and Justice (APJ) at St. Ambrose University (IA), working with the CCHD-funded group Quad Cities Interfaith (QCI). This relationship has been active for six years, and students from APJ assist QCI with a variety of initiatives. One student serves on QCI’s health care task force, which advocates for health equity, including access to health care for all members of the community. Another student serves on the immigration task force and spoke with the area’s sheriff about immigration procedures and customs enforcement. Last year, APJ students worked with QCI to try to pass state legislation banning the practice of shackling women prisoners during childbirth. While the bill passed in Iowa’s House of Representatives, it did not pass in the Senate; QCI has plans to re-introduce the legislation next year.

APJ’s vice president Corrigan Goldsmith advised, “It’s very challenging work, but realizing that you can change a person’s life is worth it – you can’t change the entire system in a year, but keep laying the bricks and don’t get discouraged.” Next year, APJ will continue its collaboration with QCI, focusing on topics related to restorative justice.

These examples demonstrate how colleges and universities witness to the faith and contribute important resources, skills, and knowledge for the benefit of the communities that surrounds them. More information is available here about how interested colleges and universities can participate.

 Andrea Price is a graduate student at Georgetown University and the Peace and Justice Intern at the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities.

Loving Mercy and Doing Justice

Sarah Nolan

Sarah Nolan

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. – Micah 6:8 (NIV)

As part of NM Communities in Action & Faith (CAFé), an organization supported by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, Kenneth Servais and his wife Janice agreed to lead a parish group to collect signatures to place a minimum wage increase on the ballot in Las Cruces, New Mexico. They had never done anything like it before and were nervous about the response they would get.

Kenneth and Janice arrived to their parish of Immaculate Heart of Mary early, before the first mass, setting out clipboards on tables in the foyer. I could see they were nervous and excited all at once. Temperatures were on the rise and expected to be in the high 90s, but even that didn’t stop them from canvassing later that afternoon.

With their leadership, Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish collected the second largest number of signatures of parishes and congregations helping in the effort to raise the minimum wage. With over 700 signatures collected, including from the former bishop of Las Cruces, Ricardo Ramirez, they and others were putting their faith into action.

A living wage is a fundamental right of workers and a moral imperative of employers. But I know that it’s not just one task or campaign or even the issues that transform and deepen a person’s faith. It’s the experience of having one’s hope renewed and helping to foster hope for others. It’s an awesome thing for me to witness. Those working to affirm the dignity of others are always affirmed in their own faith, dignity and worth.

The prophet Micah calls us to love mercy and do justice. Over and over again in my experience as an organizer, I’ve found that as parishes and individuals, we can easily fall into the habit of doing mercy and loving justice. Not a bad thing, but we’re called to carry out the more challenging words of the prophet, loving mercy and doing justice. That seems more challenging. Yet, in our baptism, are we not anointed with power and love to be priest, prophet and king in the service of God and God’s people?

I’ve been committed to my ministry as a community organizer ever since I was a Catholic Campaign for Human Development intern in 2003. I know that institutions like our parishes are ideal places to affirm the dignity of our communities. We need to train ourselves and our parish communities in the best practices of being prophetic witnesses and leaders in our cities and towns. Prayer and deep reflection in community, with brothers and sisters who share a vision of doing justice, keep us all grounded in a vision for a future not our own. This is exactly what groups like CAFé are doing in parishes. The Catholic Campaign for Human Development provides parishes and organizations involved in the work of mercy and justice the needed empowerment to begin and continue the work.

Sarah Nolan is a community organizer with NM Communities in Action & Faith and a former intern for the Catholic Campaign for Human Development.

Go deeper:
Check out CCHD’s Internship Program.
Learn more about the bishops’ teaching on the Just Wage and the Federal Minimum Wage.
Visit PovertyUSA and PobrezaUSA to learn more about the work of CCHD supported organizations and follow CCHD on Twitter.